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Interview with Monica Tan (Author of Stranger Country)

By Nachiket Behera

Nachiket: So, coming straight to the point, what really inspired you to go on a cross-country road trip of 30,000kms?

Monica: Well I guess the thought of the trip began when I was living in China. I was in China in my late twenties because I am of Chinese heritage, and also because I was interested in getting to know the country from which my heritage comes. And I really loved living there. It was the first time that I really valued the diversity of languages and richness of culture, the importance of history. While I was there, I had this realisation that I really loved living in a country with hundreds of languages and I felt a little bit sad that I didn’t come from a country that had that. And then I realised that I did actually come from a country which also had hundreds of languages, hundreds of different cultures and it made me realise how little I knew about our Indigenous people and cultures. I found I could name so many different Chinese ethnic minorities but I couldn’t name a single Indigenous Australian nation. I also realised that I didn’t really know much about Australia. I had travelled the world by then. I had been to so many cities and soo many places of beauty around the world, but I had never been to the northern territory. I had never seen the Daintree rain forest or the Uluru and I realised that there was something very strange about that. The fact that I knew so much about America for example, through American pop culture but little about different towns like Broome or Cairns or even Adelaide. So, when I arrived back from China in Australia, I decided that I really wanted to get to know Australia better, and this trip was sort of the ultimate fruition of that desire.

Nachiket: So, coming to your rich cultural background – how does your Chinese-Malaysian heritage and your Australian upbringing really shape your personality and who you are today?

Monica: That’s a good question. I think that as a Chinese-Australian, I have always had my identity also projected as sort of my notion of Australia as shared. My understanding of Australia that Australia is not only experienced from the streets, but also through the media, pop culture, and through the politics doesn’t always represent the diversity that we experience in our suburbs and neighbourhoods. As a Chinese-Australian that always made me feel there is a gap between me and the idea what is typical Australian. At the same time I have always acknowledged that I am a hybrid person, and I am deeply influenced by my Australian upbringing: I am someone who is comfortable in multicultural society, who really values democracy as a critic of the system, values diversity in society. While I was living in China, I realised my connection to my Chinese cultural home. I began to understand what Chinese culture is and all its richness. When I went on my trip, I really got the understanding of Chinese culture at the length* which I sort of experienced there as well.

Nachiket: So, coming back to your book, why did you choose to name your book as “Stranger Country”? I mean, you’ve been living in Australia for quite a lot of years, almost your entire childhood, so why “Stranger Country”?

Monica: Yes, I was born in Australia, and I spent my entire childhood in Australia. And it was quite strange to realise that in my whole life my understanding of Australia was very limited, and not just because of my Chinese background. It’s because our family story in this country is really short. You know, I was the first in family to be born in Australia. And that means we don’t as a family carry all these connections and stories to this country, but another person who might have six generations here will have. I am not a person who might have a thousand generations of families living here for fifty thousand years, sixty thousand years. My connection to this country can never be as big as someone like that. In many ways, even though I was born here, I am actually still enclosed in my lineage. We are still getting to know this country. And that’s a relationship that actually takes time, over many generations, if not thousands of generations.

Nachiket: So, any particular incident or memory from your road trip that connected with you or you would like to share?

Monica: Yes. So, there was this really wonderful place that I went to, called Pine Creek in North territory. This is an old colonial town. It’s a mining town like so many colonial towns in Australia are and it used to have hundreds of Chinese miners in late 1800s. This was a place which was very vibrant and Chinese would have been the dominant language in this place back then. I was taken to this place by this third generation Chinese-Australian man. His grandmother had been born in Australia in the late 1800s, and he took me out to this sort of bushland, and he showed me this old pig oven. This whole thing is the size of a washing machine and cemented with termite nest.

Nachiket: That’s unique!

Monica: Exactly! Which is really extraordinary. This old pig oven created by the Chinese miners was made with the material of the Australian landscape. I thought that was really special, and I could just see the sofa, cupboards, and tents; all these Chinese miners, young men who had been working very hard all day with thick hands digging or panning for gold. They would have been such an extraordinary sight. They would have felt very far away from their home. And seeing that, really seeing that, really (re-)living that made me realise that how well our people, my people – the Chinese people have been in Australia. Not only that, it helped me realise what contribution we played in this colonial Australia. We were in many towns, if not in almost all towns we were the master-gardeners, we were the builders in colonial times. We were helping build roads and railways. And of course, we were the miners, we were cooks, we were sailors, we were everywhere. We were running businesses, all kinds of businesses. So, seeing the contribution that my people played in colonialism, really opened my eyes to almost a sense of responsibility or complicity that Chinese people have when it comes to colonialism in Australia. It is not just white person’s problem.

Nachiket: That’s something great. And it really looks quite right when you say it like that.

Monica: So, you’re of Indian background right?

Nachiket: Yes, I am.

Monica: So, you will be happy to know that, there were all these cameleers from India and all through the Asia in the middle ages. They were some of the most important sort of forms of transport in the remote Australia during colonial times.

Nachiket: Oh really?

Monica: Yeah and there are a lot and lots of old mosques that were built in 1800s where Muslim traders from Southern Asian (countries) so that they could pray. It’s really extraordinary.

Nachiket: Yeah, it is. So, Monica, I will come back to the issues that you care for. You have also worked with Green Peace, and as you said you were in China for four years. So, what were the challenges that you faced while working there?

Monica: While in Green Peace one of the most amazing things I have ever done, (it) was such an honour to work alongside all these very talented young Chinese environmentalists, and I really saw how sophisticated they were with understanding this very complex place called China. And they had sort of very good understanding of what can and can’t be done and what is the best way to push the country forward in terms of taking action on Climate change, on improving work quality, on improving sanitation and reducing environmental damage in industrial production. It was a real honour doing my small bit to help the organisation. And that was really the beginning of my environmental awakening. And when I went on my trip I really brought that to my trip as well. Perhaps it can be seen as a bias, but for me seeing all the environmental problems that Australia is experiencing was really hurtful, it really pained me to see the damage that we are doing to the Australian environment.

Nachiket: You were also very vocal and instrumental in the ‘Stop Adani campaign’ and factories Beecroft as well. What does it take to be a successful environmentalist like you? That’s what many of our readers would like to know.

Monica: I think that in terms of campaigning, campaigning requires lots of hard work. Often, it’s not very glamorous, writing letters, organising protests, learning how to communicate especially with people who think differently to you. I think the one side of environment that is often lost is the most important thing is feeling what Indigenous people call connection with the country. So that’s actually developing a relationship with the land. It can’t just be a sort of durable process. I really feel like in order to remain motivated you have to get out on the country, you have to go to bushwalks, you have to go for a drive out into the countryside; or even if it’s your backyard, even if it’s the trees around you, it’s about taking notice of the birds, taking notice of the air, taking notice of the sunrise and the sunset; and realise that this country which is millions of years old and has had human occupation for at least 60,000 years. We as human beings, even if we live in the cities, we have a relationship to the land.

Nachiket: That’s really beautiful of what you said about the sunrise and the sunset. So, where do you get the courage to fight all these big multinational companies. I mean they are kind of intimidating if you start from the scratch?

Monica: That’s a really good question. So, many sorts of Goliaths that I often face and I feel I am either the David or I am standing alongside a lot of other Davids. And I think that’s the key. You know when you join a movement, that’s the difference, you are not just one David – you are a million Davids. I have never done environmentalism alone; these things have not occurred to me in sort of isolation. I am a part of the community, I am part of local community groups, I am part of national and even international movements of people who help me learn and together we campaign. And I think it’s always important to remember that we are all human beings, even corporations, even conservative politicians, in the end we are all human beings who share the same planet. So, it’s not a war, it’s not a battle. I really never see it as a fight, it’s a conversation between people with different views who are trying to understand each other and trying to find a happy compromise, share ideas, and come to the table to negotiate and cooperate.

Nachiket: That would be really helpful to all our environment friendly students out there. So, coming into politics Monica, you are a Greens candidate for Berowra, so what are the issues that you are concerned with? And what are you really going to put up out there for the people?

Monica: The number one issue that we are campaigning on is climate change. This is the biggest issue that is facing our generation and it is deplorable how our politicians today, particularly those in government failed to understand the vastness of this problem and the impact it’s going to have on future generations. And I am really exalted to see the young Australians understand this and they are getting out on the streets. I went to support this one school striking for the climate at the end of last year, and it was just incredibly exciting to talk to high school students. They were so passionate about this issue. I was baffled as to why our parliamentarians have completely failed to bring the country forward to adopt renewable energy and say yes to the host of solutions that are available. And to realise that Australians should be leading the world in terms of what we are doing about climate change, and instead we are lagging behind. We are actually failing to do what I would consider our obligation to the global community.

Nachiket:  My next question is also on the same lines. What is Australia doing wrong environmentally? And in what areas it could lead as an example?

Monica: So obviously number one is climate change which we have to address by starting to really respect the Paris Agreement and we should be doing more in respecting those targets. We should be trying to go beyond them, improve them. That’s definitely the number one. But there is a hope that the things we are doing, that I myself have witnessed on my road trip, so early on my road trip I visited the Murray River which is part of the famous Murray-Darling basin. The basin is spread over multiple states like New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. And unfortunately, my state is just pilfering the water. We are failing to manage water. We are allowing all kinds of if not illegal but at least immoral activities on the waterways and it having deep ramifications for the farmers and the communities downstream, and of course also the wildlife and nature. Some of the rivers I saw, they were dry or they were sluggish, there was terrible erosions happening on the banks and there were completely dead native fish and other animals like frogs/ducks and insects and birds. All of those, they are in a coma. If you have healthy rivers and clear water and lots of wildlife and big healthy strong trees; then you know that the river system is alive and well. And what I saw was that was simply not the case. It was really disturbing to me, what we are doing to our rivers. Everyone knows that water is life, and if we can’t protect our water, we are sowing seeds of our own destruction.

Nachiket: Coming to my last question. What can a student take from your book and if there is any message that you would like to pass on?

Monica: I wish that I had, this might sound a little vague that I honestly almost wrote this book for a younger version of myself. I am actually a college teacher, so I have students who are in their late teens and early twenties and I have dedicated this book to them – my Australian Studies students. So, I hope this book shows those students reading The Lot’s Wife, that their country is so diverse, so complex, so beautiful and some of the stories that I learnt on my trip are those that I have never heard before. And I realise that things about women and things about different cultures, stories about Indigenous Australians aren’t that exciting to the general public and are often exchanged for a more simple and straightforward version of the story of Australia. That’s a real shame because we really lose any opportunity to understand our own self-earned space in this country. But my travels and I hope my talks have helped restore some of these communities and figures or stories that were pushed aside, but were always there, always part of the Australian story. I heard stories of Indigenous Australians, who could speak Japanese living in Broome, because they have spent months, weeks of every year they live with fellow Japanese pearl divers. In Broome I met a family, who within their family they had Malay, Irish, and Yawuru (which is the local Indigenous group). They had all three heritages in their family. And in that town, their cooking is incredible! You can actually eat dugong cooked with soy sauce, lemongrass and all these Asian flavours. Broome is such an extraordinary place with such a fusion of Asian, Indigenous and European cultures. And it struck me that I had no idea of our country’s history is like this. So, I hope that my whole contribution to the cannon of multicultural Australian story helps open up the feeling that we can have a unified national narrative that is truthful and inquisitive.

**Monica Tan’s debut novel Stranger Country is available now.

Editorial Team

The author Editorial Team

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